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Respecting and advancing human rights: Part Two – Barriers obstructing realisation of human rights


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Respecting and advancing human rights: Part Two – Barriers obstructing realisation of human rights

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Professor Raymond Suttner

28th March 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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The principle of non-violence and peace

One of the features of the attack on human rights in South African society is the pervasiveness of violence. In contemporary South African society, violence persists at the hands of state agents at every level, there is violence at the hands of members and activists of various political organisations, violence at the hands of political and other vigilantes in the name of law and order or of cleansing South Africa, of people who “do not belong here” or people who are classified as homeless as if being without a home is a crime as opposed to their denial of a home, being contrary to the human rights spirit of the Constitution.


But the readiness to use violence in South Africa is one of the features of a repudiation of human rights in contemporary South Africa, that needs to be addressed before we can genuinely celebrate and teach people about human rights observance in South Africa today.

Non-violence and peace are the foundational basis for every other right. It is hardly mentioned as a principle in South African public life - yet it is essential that if we want to rebuild a human rights culture, that we ensure that non-violence becomes a central feature of social and state consciousness. One is likely to struggle to find any reference to it in statements of political figures.


It is, of course, gendered, linked to macho masculinities that thrive in South Africa, notably in the recent EFF call for a total shutdown, with its ambiguous language - not calling for looting, but warning those who open shops that they could be looted.

That discourse and associated songs of war have no place in a democratic South Africa where peace and n0n-violence are badly needed to limit the already high toll of people who are injured or killed.

Impact of legacies of the national liberation Struggle on human rights

The ANC, as with other national liberation movements, were key forces for securing democracy. But national liberation movements were conceived in ways that also carry dangers. The word national provides the key to the first element of the national liberation model, that is, that the movement depicts itself or is attributed by others as the authentic representative of the people, or the nation-to-be. Just as vanguard parties “stand in” for the proletariat, national liberation movements are, as it were, the nation in the process of becoming. That is their self-representation.  

It is found in many revealing slogans, for example:

  • “ANC is the nation”;
  • “CPP is Ghana, Ghana is CPP” (referring to the Convention People’s Party, led by Kwame Nkrumah); and
  • “KANU is your mother and your father.” (The Kenya African National Union, that led the struggle against British rule).

The attribution of authentic representativity even before an election had been held was a powerful means of delegitimising the colonial/apartheid power, even if in some cases this was shared between two liberation movements.

Such status was attached to a number of liberation movements in the course of struggle and before facing elections by the United Nations General Assembly and the then Organisation for African Unity. The victory in elections that usually followed could be seen as merely confirmation of leadership and national liberation movements being primary nation-builders. This status was already awarded/earned independent of national elections, and was sometimes claimed to endure irrespective of any future electoral test.  

It raised the potential danger which has already been seen in election rigging in Zimbabwe, that there is a construction of the liberation movement, the primary freedom fighters prior to independence, as the embodiment of the nation and as many used to say “no force on Earth” could defeat them.   

The model provides the danger of liberation movement hegemony never being challengeable. They are the permanent bearers of national liberation. Liberation is not then seen as a continuous process. It may mean the original national liberation forces are augmented by others.  But there can never be any organisation other than the bearers of liberation at independence or having a tight link to what was constituted as the initial precursors of the nation.

In contrast, if the notion of national liberation is to have a continuous meaning, widening the scope of freedom, this is realisable only if the notion of national liberation is itself continuously developing under scrutiny and re-evaluation, with or without the original national liberation organisation in leadership.

One of the results of this construction of the national liberation movement has been the rigging of elections. It does seem that the ANC may not go so far and will concede in elections, though these days one cannot take anything for granted.

But of relevance to the present, the national liberation model tends to be anti-pluralistic and consequently lends itself in the current period towards xenophobia and other forms of Othering - and undermines the universal quality of our human rights.

The category of people who are aggrieved by alleged unconstitutional action now includes a wider range of people than mentioned in earlier human rights demands - others who have come to encounter arbitrary policing, homophobia, xenophobia and other forms of repression. This bears some relation to the “national liberation model” of self-understanding by the ANC.

Human rights and relationality

Human rights cannot be treated as something accruing purely to an individual who has to secure the rights that that individual has under the law of the Constitution, or by virtue of being a human being according to various statements in history.

The understanding needed is that the human rights culture and respect for human rights will have to be developed in relationships between people.

Pope Francis rightly decries that we live in a world of “globalised indifference”, that there are continuing wars and acts of violence against communities and peoples that are met with indifference, without any concern on the part of many members of the international community, and in the case of our country, without any statement from our own leaders. He calls for solidarity among all peoples. (

There must be what the Pope calls a “culture of encounter”, meaning a culture of reaching out to people with compassion, a culture of care and concern for human beings, no matter what their ideas may be, no matter what their colour, no matter what their gender, no matter what their sexual orientation may be: “The culture of encounter is built in the search for harmony among diversity, a harmony that requires acceptance, openness and creativity. At the root of this style of life there is the Gospel. Never tire of invoking the Holy Spirit, Creator of harmony.” (

We need to build relationships between people. Human rights cannot be realised if we exist as if in isolated islands. Relationships must be built by joining with people in accordance with the idiom on which ubuntu is advocated.

I am aware that ubuntu can have more than one interpretation, but the meaning that I'm advancing here, is one, where we are all linked together with a common fate, and we have to ensure that that joining is made a reality and meaningful for all, especially the vulnerable.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities of the ANC,SACP and UDF. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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